Sergio Ramos' Dangerous Game with Real Madrid Could Drag on All SummerJune 5, 2019
Sergio Ramos is pure showbusiness. He makes hip-hop tracks. He collects expensive modern art. He fights bulls. It seems he makes headlines with every move he makes. Last week was no different. Late on the Monday night, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez conducted a rare interview with Onda Cero radio station to address a story that Ramos was toying with a move to the Chinese Super League.
Ramos, 33, had previously come to the offices of Perez—where the Real president runs one of the world's largest construction companies—with his brother and agent, Rene Ramos, and a lawyer, Julio Senn. They had news for Perez. A football club in China was offering Ramos the guts of €35 million a season—which is twice what he earns at Real Madrid—to join them. The stinger was that he'd have to come on a free transfer.
Perez was in no mood to haggle. The meeting went nowhere. As the club president explained in his radio interview, it was preposterous to think that Real Madrid could release its captain—who still has two years to run on his contract—for free. It would, he said, create "a terrible precedent." Perez did, however, concede that Ramos could leave Real Madrid if his release clause was paid, leaving the door open should a club negotiate a transfer fee.
Ramos' credit is low with Perez. Real Madrid just put down their worst season this century, and Ramos' performances were mixed. He conspicuously missed Real Madrid's 4-1 thrashing against Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in the UEFA Champions League because he intentionally picked up a booking and suspension in the tie's first leg to wipe it out from affecting him in a potential quarter-final, believing his side capable of progressing without him. When Perez and Ramos had a row in the dressing room after Real's elimination, Perez threatened to kick Ramos out of the club. Angling for a contract renewal against this background shows a lack of judgement by Ramos. His timing is poor.
"The [negotiating] position of Ramos has been weakened a lot," says Diego Torres, a journalist with El Pais. "He miscalculated. Sergio thought that after the crisis that befell Real Madrid this season that he was indispensable—that he was more important than ever. He has discovered that Florentino considers him expendable—that he would be OK in selling him and negotiating with the Chinese if the Chinese paid some money for him. This has left Sergio Ramos in a bad place. It's why he called the press conference to say he doesn't want to leave the club."
On Thursday, Ramos caused a traffic jam outside Real Madrid's training ground, Valdebebas, when he called a snap press conference to address the rumors. He showed up tanned after returning to the country from a holiday abroad. He was wearing a pair of shorts and a funky patterned shirt. He was jovial. Like his head was still poolside. The press conference rambled on for half an hour. He repeated himself, delivering two messages: he wanted to stay at the club, even claiming he would play for free, and that he enjoyed a healthy, robust relationship with Perez like a father's with his son.
"Who hasn't fought with his father?" Ramos asked rhetorically. He might have picked the wrong fight this time. The road behind him is strewn with former Real Madrid captains and stalwarts who have run afoul of Perez and have had to leave the club prematurely—such as Fernando Hierro, Raul Gonzalez and Iker Casillas. Cristiano Ronaldo too.
"Ramos finds himself in a similar place in many ways to the position of Hierro and Cristiano," says Torres. "They were two figures who were very popular. Two captains who enjoyed hierarchical privilege that fought with the president for control of the club, for power inside the club. Florentino has never liked these kind of charismatic leaders, players who acquire power, who are influential in the dressing room. He prefers players who are employees like Gareth Bale or Karim Benzema. People who do their work and shut up."
A tearful Casillas called a press conference to announce his departure for Porto in 2015. A more formal, rushed send-off was organised for the following day at the Bernabeu. Only 2,000 fans showed up to thank him for his 17 years of service. It was clear Casillas was leaving through the back door and arguably had been nudged out of it. A similar fate could await Ramos. It's not in Perez's nature to celebrate players who become a threat to him.
"With this president it's rarely a happy ending," says Ramon Calderon, a former Real Madrid president. "He doesn't like the inheritances he receives. It's been a problem. Only the players that he signs are treated well. If you see what English clubs do with legendary players [who retire], they always organise very big celebrations. They pay tribute to them in a special way. They might retire the shirt—at least for one or two years. Everything is different. It's a pity. [Perez] doesn't know how to do that. This president is worried about himself much more than anyone else. He wants to be the protagonist always and he doesn't like it when the players—unless he signs them himself—are the protagonists."
The case of Raul—who left to join Schalke in the Bundesliga in 2010—is instructive. "Raul became a problem [for Perez], so he had to get out of Real Madrid," says Marco Ruiz, a journalist with Diario AS. "For the people of Real Madrid, Raul was important. It was the same with Casillas, with Hierro, with Vicente del Bosque [who was sacked by Perez in 2003 after winning the league title]. Raul is an extreme case. Raul is back in Real Madrid. Florentino is intelligent. He repaired relations with him. He was welcomed back. Raul is climbing the coaching ladder. Now he's trainer of Castilla [the club's reserve team] and he'll probably be first-team coach after [Zinedine] Zidane.
"Ramos has acquired this specific status in Real Madrid, but it's different to Raul's standing. Ramos is not Raul. Ramos didn't come up through the cantera (youth academy) like Casillas and Raul. Ramos came from Sevilla. Ramos has made wrong moves like, for example, in the summer of 2015 when he floated an offer from Manchester United. Raul never resorted to this kind of negotiating ploy. Neither did Casillas.
"People aren't stupid. Nobody is taking seriously the intention of Ramos to leave for China. [They don't like the way] he is playing his cards, or the role of his entourage, the leaked stories, trying to pressure the club. Look at Raul or Casillas. When they were players at the club, their negotiations with the club were always kept private. The fans never knew what they were saying behind closed doors. The strategy of Ramos has not improved his image with Real Madrid's fans."
Zidane, who returned to the club as manager in March, finds himself in the middle of this mess. He will need Ramos for the season ahead.
"I'm sure Zidane wants Ramos to stay," says Calderon. "It's difficult to find a [replacement] like him. He's been with us for a long, long time. He's scored important goals that have helped us to win Champions League trophies. He's always been fighting for the team. Fans have a lot of appreciation for players like him. He's very brave. He's always trying to give 100 per cent of himself. It's something very appreciated here at the Bernabeu."
Zidane has to pick his battles. There is major surgery required on Real Madrid's squad. Over a dozen players have to be moved out. Stars have to be brought in. Ramos isn't a priority. He isn't somebody Zidane can afford to go to war over like he has done previously with, say, Keylor Navas when Perez wanted to sign Kepa as a replacement in the winter transfer window of Zidane's last season in charge, as per Alfredo Relano of AS.
"Zidane considers Ramos important for his project, but he hasn't defended him in private conversations with Florentino," says Torres. "Zidane is impartial in this case with Ramos. He has told the president that Ramos is important but that he is not opposed to the politics of the club if the club considers Ramos should be sold. In the relations between Ramos and Florentino, Zidane has taken up a position like Switzerland in the Second World War, as a neutral country."
Torres can't predict if Ramos will be at Real Madrid next season, but he says the defender has left himself exposed. He's backed himself into a corner.
"I'm sure he will be part of the squad next season," says Ruiz. "Ramos wants to continue his career at Real Madrid. He has his life here in Spain, his horses down in Seville on a ranch. I don't think he has any intention of leaving, but of course you never know."
For now, Ramos has a wedding to focus on. Next week, he will marry Pilar Rubio—who is a model and the mother of his three children—in the cathedral in Seville. It will be a blockbuster affair with lots of celebrity guests invited, including Perez. There will be plenty of time left over the summer months to sort out his future at the club.
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